IAEA Conference in Moscow Causes Anxiety among Environmentalists

Publish date: July 15, 2005

Written by: Rashid Alimov

The International Conference on "Multilateral Technical and Organizational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle aimed at Strengthening the Non-Proliferation Regime" takes place in Moscow, July 13—15. The conference is organized by the IAEA and Russian Federal Agency for nuclear energy, Rosatom.

Over 200 representatives of Russian and foreign organizations and companies involved in the nuclear fuel cycle, regulatory bodies and scientists take part in the conference.

Vladimir Chuprov, an expert from the Greenpeace, is confident that the widely formulated topic actually signifies another discussion on the construction of an international nuclear waste repository in Russia.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the UN supports the construction of the world’s first nuclear-waste storage facility in Russia. This, in IAEA’s opinion, will prevent dangerous materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. This was first claimed by IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei in Moscow in June 2004.

"But all the Rosatom’s policy shows that nonproliferation idea doesn’t play a key role in decision making," according to Greenpeace.

The building of a nuclear powerplant in Iran and the planned construction of the floating nuclear power plants, which burn weapon-grade uranium, so as to lend them to the South-East Asia, are typical examples of the lack of adherence to non-proliferation policy.

Another reason to argue against such projects is the multiple preexisting unsolved problems in the Russian nuclear industry. The list of these problems was recently published in Bellona’s report "The Russian nuclear industry: the Need for Reform."

"In recent years, and in the future, the Russian nuclear industry together with the IAEA will do their best to convince the people of Russia of the necessity of such a waste repository," claims Greenpeace. In Chuprov’s opinion, the current conference is one of many steps taken by the IAEA and Rosatom to pave the way for the creation of the international repository in Russia.

One year ago, the head of Rosatom, Alexander Rumyantsev, revealed plans to organize an international conference to discuss two variants for contruction for the waste repository. He made this statement after meeting with El-Baradei. He didn’t comment, however, on what the two variants were, and when the conference would take place.
Bellona Web failed to reach Rosatom’s press-service on the phone before the conference, though we’ve managed to accredit our correspondent at a press-briefing before the event. Access to the conference is restricted, and Greenpeace was barred from entry on the grounds that the conference is being held only for specialists.

In the morning of July, 13 activists of Greenpeace met participants of the conference with a poster "Chernobyl – repository No 1. Russia – repository No 2?" One activist climbed the statue of Hermes near the Moscow World Trade Center. The mountain-climber hung a poster "Here they sell the future" on the leg of the god. He also applied a radiation symbol to a glass ball at the pedestal of the figure. Two activists were detained.

Unsolved Problems
The recent Bellona report "Russian Nuclear Industry: the Need for Reform" critisizes Rosatom for lobbying in favour of nuclear waste import into the country. As for the international cooperation, the authors stress the lack of coordination and audit, which makes it possible to spend international money without any control.

Besides, funds invested into the nuclear safety projects actually often support the dangerous and unprofitable structure of Russian nuclear industry instead of stimulating any reforms. Such programs as the HEU-LEU programme—which is based on a business to business agreement between the US and Russia’s nuclear fuel manufacturers—allows Russia to maintain the Soviet-era status quo of its nuclear industry to the tune of $500m a year and offers no impetus for Moscow to re-assess the current structure of its nuclear industry.

"They are perfectly satisfied to take nuclear waste to Russia and its huge expenses, create more radioactive hazards for the environment and human life for a little money," commented on the IAEA initiatives Alexander Nikitin, Chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona, or ERC, Bellona’s St. Petersburg Branch, in 2004, when the initiatives just had been unmasked.

"I have always thought this was a terrible idea, but I am more worried now than before because it is being discussed at such high levels."

Bellona physicist and International Programme Director Nils Bøhmer said, "The income for a potential future repository will— if it doesn’t end up in some secret account in Switzerland—will be used to strengthen the power of the successors of Minatom."

He said the project itself will lead to further political and nuclear challenges in Russia and said that "the IAEA involvement in this project is a blow for the growing democratic movement in Russia, and will undermine this development—the people of Russia have very clearly said ‘no’ to any international repositories in Russia."

Spent fuels and nuclear waste imports
Currently, there is no country in the world legally allowing imports of spent fuel and nuclear waste for storage. Only imports of spent fuel for reprocessing are possible in several countries, provided that all the nuclear waste generated during the reprocessing is returned to the country of the spent fuel origin in a given short period of time.

In 2001, several amendments to environmental legislation were adopted in Russia, regardless of public opinion: it was allowed to import spent nuclear fuel for temporary technological storage and for dumping of the nuclear waste, generated during the reprocessing. And even the ‘temporary storage’ may actually become eternal, as the terms were never exactly stated.

But not until 2004, did Rosatom begin speaking in favor of not only spent fuel imports for reprocessing "to extract valuable materials," but of importing nuclear waste for dumping in Russia.

According to the ROMIR polling agency survey of November 2000, 93.5 per cents of Russian citizens negatively react to the plans to import radioactive materials to Russia from other countries for storage, reprocessing, or dumping.

In June 2004, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, speaking alongside ElBaradei at a conference, said Moscow fully supported the IAEA proposal. "Russia is the only country in the world where legislation allows that," he said.

Rosatom hopes to get large-scaled international funds for the construction of such a repository, its maintenance, and waste isolation process.

Not a single country but Russia itself supports so intently the creation of an international nuclear repository in the Russian territory. And in the opinion of Vladimir Slivyak of the Ecodefence! environmental group, that would postpone any such plans, in spite of persistent lobbying and advertising.

"Currently there is no international initiative supporting such plans," says Slivyak.

"Waste storage is a serious problem, but no so pressing globally yet, to demand an urgent solution, like creation of international repositories in certain countries."

According to Chuprov, it would be possible to understand what stage the project has reached from the decisions of international institutions such as the 2006 G8 summit in St Petersburg.

"If this question building of a nuclear repository would be at the summit agenda, it would mean, all the undercover negotiations hit the target."

The lack of conception
Today, just before the beginning of the IAEA conference, Yury Chernogorov, the former chief technologist of a special group of the Murmansk Shipping Company, sent a letter to the minister of industry and energy Victor Khristenko, the minister of transportation Igor Levitin, and the president of the Kurchatov Institute Yevgeny Velikhov.

"Before discussing the idea of international repository it is necessary to solve the problem — and make decisions on building Russian repositories for the Russian nuclear waste," he says.

Recently, Chernogorov, as an invited expert, contributed to Bellona Web an analysis of various approaches to the dismantlement of the Lepse nuclear storage vessel, which stores tons of spent nuclear fuel from the Russian icebreakers on board. The document is published on the Bellona web site.

According to Chernogorov, the current conception does not really allow dismantling of nuclear submarines, nuclear maintenance vessels and nuclear-powered surface ships.

Rosatom’s conception, adopted officially in 2000, in fact legalized the postponement of the decommissioning of nuclear submarines, — while according to this conception, the reactor compartments, cut off from the submarine hulls, are not decommissioned, but placed for 70 years in an interim storage site.

"No repositories are built meanwhile, the problem is shifted to the shoulders of our great-grandsons", Chernogorov says.

In June Rosatom’s web-site published an interview with Sergey Antipov, deputy head of Rosatom.

"The most urgent task for us is to launch the object interim waste storage at the Saida Bay in time, before the end of the year. This means we have to install the reactor compartment on the concrete basement for long-time storage. Once we have done this, we will have grounds to say that at least one nuclear submarine has been completely decommissioned," Antipov said.

"But this absolutely does not mean complete decommissioning," says Chernogorov.

"It is decommissioning of the reactor compartment that represents the main problem. And storing the waste into the repositories, building of which is not among the priorities according to the current conception".

In December 2002 Minatom’s representative Victor Akhunov explained the 70 years period in the following terms: "The fixed period is too short for the hulls to become depressurized or lose their solidity… At the same time it is enough for the natural nuclear deactivation… to the level allowing decommissioning the reactor compartments without limits for the working shifts. It will return to the national economy hundreds of tons of high-quality metal."

"In 70 years only cobalt-60 will dissociate. Nickel-59, nickel-63 and molybdenum-93 and other isotopes will not fully decay by this time. Of course, it will be impossible to melt this metal," says Chernogorov.

"Even if some clear metal can be found there, the work of dosimetrists, as well as the work of other operations, will make it ten times more expensive than the normal market price for such metal".

The more so, the Rosatom conception, — stipulating submarine decommissioning— does not provide for decommissioning of nuclear maintenance vessels and nuclear-powered surface ships, while they are similar objects and would be dealt with at the same shipyards by the same personnel anyway.

"Another weak point of the conception is the possibility of the sinking of the reactor compartments while towing them from the shipyard no. 49 in Kamchatka, where they are cut off the submarines hulls, to the Zvezda plant, where they would be prepared for a long-term storage. The distance between the shipyard no.49 and Zvezda is 2 300 kilometers by sea," writes Chernogorov in his letter to the Russian ministers.

On August 30th 2003, while being towed from Gremikha a former naval base to the Nerpa plant, the K-159 nuclear submarine sank, taking away the lives of nine transportation-crew members. The distance between Gremikha and Nerpa is about 300 kilometers. For the moment K-159 is still on the bottom of the Barents sea with 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel in its reactors. The lifting operation has yet to be negotiated between the Russian governmental bodies and the Mammoet company, which lifted the Kursk submarine in 2001, sunken during maneuvers in 2002, killing all the 118 members of the crew.

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